A Closer Look at Essential Fatty Acids

“Every cell, every tissue, and every organ of the body needs essential fatty acids,” states Udo Erasmus, Ph.D., an internationally recognized authority on essential fatty acids.

“Like vitamins and minerals, the body cannot make essential fatty acids, yet the body absolutely requires these healing fats,” he added.

Erasmus, who recently revised and updated his book, Fats that Heal, Fats that Kill, believes that essential fatty acids have been more neglected than any other essential nutrient.

There are two essential fatty acids that the body cannot synthesize and must consume from dietary sources. These are the omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.

Omega-3 fatty acids (called linoleic acids) are found in abundance in fish oils. Omega-3 fatty acids are needed to produce eicoapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

Omega-6 fatty acids (also known as linoleic acids) are found in many vegetable oils, most notably evening primrose oil. Omega-6 fatty acids are the parent substance for an important substance called gamma-linolenic acid (GLA).

Misconceptions Abound

Fats and oils are sorely misunderstood. Erasmus explained the four biggest misconceptions about fats and oils held by mainstream America.

First, ‘there is a big advertising scam,’ he said, “that polyunsaturated fats made from partially hydrogenated fats are beneficial to the heart.” Doctors are advising people to use margarine over butter, but the truth is that both are detrimental to health, he maintains.

Second, the cholesterol theory is basically a sham, says Erasmus, noting that some people with “high” cholesterol levels are healthy, and vice versa; while some people with seemingly low cholesterol levels are not healthy. “Cholesterol is a semi-innocent bystander,” claims Erasmus. “Oxidized toxins, lack of antioxidants, and high sugar levels are more of a problem.”

Erasmus feels the third major misinformation disseminated to Americans is the message that some fats are okay for frying. According to Erasmus, all fried fats hurt the heart.

Finally, most people believe that all hard fats are inherently “bad.” Erasmus contends that hard fats are only bad if one eats too much of them or doesn’t eat enough essential fatty acids.

Functions of Essential Fatty Acids

When asked if he could recommend essential fatty acids to everyone, Erasmus replied that “it is not different for oils than for vitamins or minerals. A healthy diet should provide 15 to 20% of calories from fat” and a portion of this should be essential fatty acids.

Essential fatty acids play a variety of roles toward a healthy body. The most basic of these, as Erasmus points out, is in energy production.

Another very important function of essential fatty acids is in neural development. Omega-3 fatty acid supplements enhance visual function in infants. New research even shows that expectant mothers supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids give birth to infants with higher levels of essential fatty acids.

Erasmus added that an interesting quality to essential fatty acids is that they provide energy, but at the same time are calming. This may explain why essential fatty acids are purported to treat ADHD and hyperactivity. Purdue University researchers have now discovered that behavior, learning, and health problems are more common in young boys if their omega-3 fatty acid levels are low.

Essential fatty acids are also said to elevate mood and lift depression. One recent study of 50 patients suffering from depression and 24 healthy, controls found that the depressed men and women had much lower levels of omega-3 fatty, acids. The researchers of this study advocate fish oil supplements for the treatment of depression.

Other healthy roles of essential fatty acids that Erasmus mentions are in the maintenance of the cardiovascular system and immune system, proper insulin function, and to inhibit tumor growth.

Deficiencies of essential fatty acids manifest as eczema, hair loss, compromised immune function, reproductive problems, behavioral changes, growth retardation, increased blood pressure, and elevated triglyceride levels. Erasmus shared a simple test for determining if one’s diet provides adequate amounts of essential fatty acids: simply feel the skin. If it is soft, smooth, and velvety, the person has an adequate essential fatty acid intake. This test works because the brain, liver, and other organs have priority for essential fatty acids. The skin is last in line. So if the skin is healthy, the body as a whole has adequate levels of essential fatty acids.

Reprinted with permission from VR, August 1996

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